Salif Kante’s long-held desire to turn his tennis talents into an American Division I scholarship has finally become reality.
The 22-year-old native of the Republic of Senegal in West Africa capitalized on his American venture after signing to play tennis at Florida A&M last spring.
Now, he’s determined to overcome the next hurdle: capturing a Division I title.
“I just want to be a part of FAMU history,” Kante said. “I want to lead my team to a national championship, just like I did at my junior college.”
The 6-foot-5 juggernaut continues to overpower defenders with his aggressive baseline play and spinning-kick serve. This past fall, he won the Seminole Invitational intercollegiate tennis tournament as he defeated Florida State’s Jason Zafiros in three straight sets to win the singles title.
FAMU tennis coach Carl Goodman said his young star has paid immediate dividends to his squad.
“Salif is a great addition to our program,” Goodman said. “I’ve been following him for years, and we’re fortunate to have him at FAMU. He’s a natural leader and true talent.”
Prior to his arrival at FAMU, Kante dominated junior college competition at Georgia Perimeter College. Last year, he was named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s senior player of the year and finished as the top junior college player in the country. He most notably won the junior college singles and doubles championships, lifting Georgia Perimeter to number seven in the nation.
Georgia Perimeter tennis coach Mohamed “Reda” Omar said that Kante’s distinctive athleticism and leadership qualities bolstered his program.
“He was a great leader,” Omar said. “A lot of kids looked up to him in the program. They were drawn by his competitiveness and how he put his game together.”
Omar also noted that his relentless determination led his squad to championship results.
“Overall, he’s a great player, good athlete and humble kid,” Omar said. “He had the right attitude to learn the game and was willing to put in the work. Florida A&M is very lucky to have him.”
Kante’s road to stardom began back in the late ’90s in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
He was a child prodigy who started playing tennis just before he reached the second grade. He recalls the long sweat-drenching days when he and his brother would practice from mid-day until dusk when he was only seven years old.
“I believe I was seven when I started practicing with my brother for five hours a day at my dad’s tennis club,” Kante said. “We would always play together and compete against each other.”
A young Kante learned the fundamentals of the game under the direct tutelage of his father, Guibril, who owns the Olympique Tennis Club in Senegal. He said that his father’s aggressive approach helped mold him into an efficient player.
“I was inspired to play tennis at a young age by my dad,” Kante said. “He pushed me to become the best player. At the age of 11, I really thought about playing In college. I realized that I wanted to compete at a high level and now I’m really enjoying it.”
Prior to graduating from high school, Pape Diaby, Kante’s Senegalese tennis coach, pointed out the 15-year-old after he saw him compete professionally against elite African and European players twice his age. After evaluating his athletic ability, he confidently told Kante he had the potential to compete in America.
Kante went on to win the Senegal National Championship in 2009, defeating then 1553-ranked Daouda Ndiaye, who played Division I tennis at Brigham Young-Hawaii. After the signature win, he decided that it was time to pursue “the American Dream,” and enroll at Georgia Perimeter.
Although his journey to the top of the American and Senegalese national ranks seemed simple, Kante overcame adversity along the way.
“Throughout my career, I had to compete against members of the national tennis team to stay on top,” Kante said. “A lot of those players were older and had more experience than me. But when you play as the No.1 for a team, everyone looks to beat you.”
Kante said that studying the English language was a complicated endeavor, but he learned the language at a rapid pace.
“When I first came here, the different language was difficult for me,” Kante said. “My first language is French, and when I came here I had to learn English. I learned it quickly in two years.”
Aside from his dominant play on the court, Kante said he enjoys playing soccer in his spare time. He said that if he didn’t pursue a tennis career, he would have explored the option of playing soccer competitively.
“If I didn’t focus on tennis, I would definitely play soccer,” Kante said. “I was the captain of my high school soccer team. I grew up playing on the streets because everyone in my neighborhood was doing it. I remember when I would run away from tennis practice to go play soccer.”
Forrest Jenkins, a graduate assistant on the FAMU tennis team, said that Kante makes everyone around him better.
“He’s definitely a leader, and he really leads by example,” Forrest said. “When you lead your team to victory, your teammates see that and try to respond. When he performs at a high level, he makes his teammates pick their game up as well.”
Jenkins praised Kante’s play-making ability.
“His victory at the FSU tournament was monumental,” Forrest said.
“He’s a very smooth and consistent player. The kid just doesn’t miss. I’ve been a student-athlete here at FAMU since 2006, and I’ve never seen a FAMU player defeat an FSU player. Not only did he beat one, but he defeated three in the same tournament. That’s incredible.”